Todd resident weaves hemp and law into film to air on Nov. 5
By Scott Nicholson
Todd resident Kevin Balling combined his interest in agriculture with his chosen profession to produce a video on a potential cash crop that could help replace tobacco.
"Hemp and The Rule of Law," a film produced by ASU professor Kevin Balling, depicts the harvesting of hemp. Photo submitted
Balling, a communications professor at Appalachian State University, has produced a number of videos, and recently wound up eight years of work on his latest documentary “Hemp and The Rule of Law,” which airs on UNC-TV Nov. 5.
Balling got the idea for the video in 1996, after years of filming and taping farmers at work harvesting hay and tobacco. A group of farmers sued the federal government for the right to grow hemp as a commercial crop. Balling said the documentary wasn’t made to defend those who want to smoke marijuana as a recreational drug, though hemp is a cousin of the kind of plants normally thought of as “marijuana.”
The terms are part of the misunderstanding over the crop’s validity, according to Balling, a point he explores in the 55-minute documentary. “This is definitely not a program about legalizing marijuana,” Balling said. “This is about legalizing a non-narcotic agricultural crop that had been growing in this country for hundreds of years.”
Balling said hemp production died in the 1950s, largely because of the criminalization of marijuana in a 1937 federal act. He said the United States is the only industrialized nation to ban hemp production, and said the main opposition to its production comes from law enforcement agencies, “who mistakenly associate it with drug use.” Those agencies are funded to eradicate cannabis plants, including domestic hemp that grows wild.
Balling said there are hundreds of varieties of cannabis, and a few dozen of them contain levels of the pyschoactive chemicals that make them popular with recreational drug users. Balling said the term “hemp” had been used for centuries, whereas “marijuana” was a Mexican word that has been in use since the 1930s.
The Marijuana Stamp Tax Act of 1937, introduced in Congress by Alleghany County native Robert Doughton, pooled hemp varieties with the “marijuana” varieties. Ironically, Balling found historical evidence that hemp was grown in Alleghany County as a cash crop.
“I wanted to do a piece on rural America and on agriculture,” Balling said. “I like to shoot farming activities, and tobacco farmers were looking for an alternative crop. Right about that time, I was reading about tobacco farmers in Kentucky who were suing the federal government for the right to grow hemp. Right then, I knew I had a story.”
Balling interviewed some of those farmers, then began exploring the issue and plowing through research documents. He made two trips to Canada, where hemp production started again in the late 1990s, and also interviewed politicians, law enforcement agents, and drug enforcement agents. The political and moral dispute clouds the plant’s potential as both a food and fiber source.
“That’s the beauty of this plant,” Balling said. “The entire plant has uses. The stalk can be used for fiber and the seeds can be used for food, oils, cosmetics and body products.”
Balling said about a half-dozen states were pushing to legalize hemp at the state level, and said in all of those states, it has received bipartisan support as an agricultural issue. However, Balling feels their fight will be futile until federal legislation is passed that doesn’t trump state bills. A bill has been introduced that would legalize hemp as a form that has low levels of psychoactive chemicals. “Right now, there is no legal definition of hemp,” Balling said.
Hemp has been used as a petroleum replacement, not just as a source of biodiesel fuel. Balling believes there is more potential to use the fiber in making plastics, creating biodegradable appliances and cars. He said 37 percent of automotive bodies in Europe are made of hemp.
Canada has been successful exporting its seed crop, which can be used in a variety of ways. “Anything you can make with soy, you can make with hemp,” Balling said. “At this time, it’s what is making the most per acre for Canadian farmers. You can do it on a smaller scale, and there’s not as much investment or processing. I think for an area like this (Watauga County), where there’s not acres and acres of flat land, a seed crop would be something that would grow well here.”
Balling believes North Dakota will be the first state to have hemp crops, partly because of the state’s proximity to Canada, where they can see the economic benefits firsthand. The crop grows well in a variety of climates, but Balling said one of the concerns is the loss of wild seeds through eradication programs. He said those seeds have been acclimated to their specific region and the loss of the seed will make its reestablishment more difficult.
Balling worked around his schedule as a video production teacher, receiving some funding from the Appalachian State University Research Council, as well as support and travel funds from the ASU Communications Department. Still, Balling had to shoulder much of the responsibility himself.
Video technology also evolved as Balling worked on the piece, and he said the documentary is a technical “mutt,” containing about a half-dozen different formats, including videotape, film and digital video.
Balling’s challenge now is to distribute the video and get it to those who can be influenced on agricultural policy. It has aired on several stations, and is available to those making monetary donations to votehemp.com, a crop advocacy organization. Balling is also entering it at film festivals and competitions.
Balling said the video is densely packed with information. “It was important to tell the story as completely as I could,” he said. “I don’t like to make the viewer work that hard.”
Balling shot about 150 hours of footage, ending up using less than an hour of it. He also learned from his research that the issue is emotional because of societal attitudes towards drugs, but opponents also don’t understand the value of the crop.
“There is a lot of misinformation on both sides of the issue,” Balling said. “Just because this crop may one day be legal in this country, it doesn’t mean farmers are going to make a lot of money off it.”
Balling said legalization of hemp wouldn’t be a quick fix for farmers. They would have to learn to cultivate it successfully, and industries would have to see its value. Balling envisions a series of small mills located near the fields to reduce transportation costs, with farmers working cooperatively to convert the fiber into paper and other usable goods. “It’s a model of revitalizing rural America,” Balling said.
Balling also skirted the issue of legalizing marijuana. “The strength of the documentary is that it does not have counterculture,” Balling said. “It has real straight agricultural people, politicians, law enforcement agents and scientists. I did not want to be a direct advocate. I took a journalistic approach to it and found very little argument against it.”
Balling has been producing independent videos for about 20 years and is a two-time recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts fellowship. The video is being shown on the Dish Network’s Free Speech TV and appeared Oct. 6 on South Carolina’s PBS affiliate as part of the “Southern Lens” series.
“Hemp & The Rule of Law” airs on UNC-TV at 11 p.m. on Nov. 5.
• Scott Nicholson may be contacted